BillyBoy*, as Barbie Wizard by Lala
The prototypes designed by BillyBoy* for Barbie.
by Lala J.P Lestrade
It is almost impossible to talk about the fascinating Barbie fashion prototypes created by BillyBoy* between 1984 and 1985 without evoking this period.
In the early eighties, the Barbie doll was not at all the collectible phenomenon that it is today - and far from it! She was a very commercial, rather bland doll, industrially-made in huge quantities and her image was aimed to please a very young audience. In other words, a fluorescent pink nylon affair in floor-length blond hair!
In France especially, Barbie never encountered in the sixties and seventies the popularity that she had in the USA during the same period, mostly because until the mid-seventies she was not marketed and widely distributed the way she was in America. Mattel France was born only in 1972. Compared to other French fashion dolls, such as the amazing Mily doll by Gégé and the Tressy doll by Bella, still around since the 1960s, and others of the time, she was a more expensive imported fashion doll.
For many adults however she had a rather controversial image, something between the bimbo and the “femme-objet” (object-woman) which, notably in France, was poorly considered in the post-1968 women’s liberation years.
As a purely collectible item on the doll market in France, she meant
absolutely nothing. When BillyBoy* would ask some doll dealers at the
fleamarket in Paris whether they had some Barbie dolls, I remember that
he was practically looked upon as if he had uttered an obscenity, which
nevertheless struck BillyBoy* as unnecessarily snobbish and pretentious.
In the land of Bru and Jumeau dolls, you could not expect any doll
dealer to consider a vinyl doll something collectible! Things surely
were to change for good (and sometimes for the worse) after BillyBoy*
came into the picture.
A fabulous project on a golden tray
BillyBoy* was the first person to write about Barbie in a sophisticated way, introducing a clever mix of humour with an accurate knowledge of high fashion history and sociological context. He knew the history of Barbie by heart and thought it was time to do something really interesting about it. Paris was opening its arms to BillyBoy*, Schiaparelli expert and high fashion collector, whose jewelery was the hottest thing around. Journalists loved him because he was young, highly visual and most importantly, incredibly clever and mostly so very witty.
Around this time, BillyBoy* was contacted by the Mattel executives in Paris. They had seen an article about him in ELLE magazine, and while he was wearing a mad 1930s Schiaparelli hat and designer clothing, on his shoulder was a “twist and turn” Barbie doll, perched like a little bird...she wore the “Action Accents” Giftset Ensemble of fake fur-trimmed skating skirt and tights in turquoise and pink...I remember that he used to go to board directors meetings, with his slicked down platinum white blonde pre-war styled hair dressed in slick black vinyl, sometimes wearing a casual wool miniskirt by Mary Quant over black wool leotard - and smothered in exotic and rare jewels. The Mattel executives could not believe their eyes but they immediately took seriously the incredible project that was brought to them on a gold platter by this extraordinary young man.
At the time, Mattel executives in general had very little awareness, if any at all, of a potential adult collectors market, a very important reality concerning Barbie which was not at all appraised by them. It is also during these meetings that BillyBoy* expressed clear and loud that Mattel should re-launch Francie, Midge and accentuate more quality-oriented dolls, which would be appealing to adult collectors. One knows today how all these ideas were to be extensively developed by Mattel, over a decade later.
When one compares Barbie "Peaches and Cream" with Barbie BillyBoy* Nouveau Théatre de la mode, both dating from 1985 as featured in the Barbie Retrospective Tour catalogue, one realizes how far the Mattel production line was from any real fashion concept, needless to say "haute couture". The only thing that Barbie "Peaches and Cream" is missing to become a dainty bedside table lamp, is a light bulb from under her skirt! The photo of BillyBoy* and Barbie here, was shot in the Paris Vogue Studios by a Vogue photographer.
A genuine vision
During this intense period, it is with BillyBoy* that I discovered the intricate world of Barbie and her fascinating story. He had a truly amazing collection of these dolls, which I discovered with stupor. It was all so funny and totally new for me. He used to sing Barbie tunes - he knew them all - or quote entire Barbie doll TV commercials from the sixties (imitating his good friend Eve Plumb, better known as Jan Brady of the sitcom "The Brady Bunch" who did many Barbie television commercials in the sixties) while playing with his dolls with Jane, his assistant.
It is also during this period that BillyBoy* started making prototypes of the Barbie doll. He had been doing "make overs" (a term coined much later in the 1990s) since he was a teen on Barbie and other fashion dolls. Mattel supplied him with endless amounts of nude generic Barbie dolls. Shortly after his contract was signed BillyBoy*’s Barbie dolls were produced by Mattel in Oyonnax, France, its plastics capital - something very unusual for Mattel at the time ( his “Nouveau Theatre de la Mode” Barbie says clearly “Made in France” on her torso).
Soon crates were arriving
from the Mattel factory of production dolls - P.J. doll at the time was
brunette and BillyBoy* much prefered this doll - we’d spend hours
opening up boxes and undressing the manufactured dolls - all these
excess doll clothes were donated to charities such as the Salvation
Army. What they must have thought of all those fushia pink “rose” shaped
gowns of P.J and those hideous synthetic Crystal Barbie gowns???
BillyBoy* really had a vision for the Barbie doll, which included the
revival of some of her highlights as well as totally contemporary
fashion looks. He often mentioned that he found it a pity that Barbie
had lost, somewhere along the way, with her worldwide main stream
marketing, some very charming and touching aspects of her personality.
He also felt that she had to become more fashion-oriented instead of
just fantasy-oriented. And what do you think about when you are in
Paris, the city of high fashion? Gloves, turbans, gowns (real ones)
cocktail outfits, chic day ensembles, big jewellery and even - how
unpolitically correct- fur! No more sneakers and jogging outfits, no
more day-glow fairy tale gowns, please!
He first hired a seamstress to execute some of his designs, because he
wanted each prototype to be like a real garment. The seamstress, a
middle-aged opiniated French woman, proved to be very slow, very
complicated and particularly disdainful about Barbie (and so expensive
too!) that she could not keep up with all the ideas BillyBoy* wanted her
Along with my help (I was
at the time working full-time on the creation of the Surreal Bijoux jewelry, a whole
series of prototypes were made, which expressed BillyBoy*’s conception
of a contemporary Barbie. Hair was cut shorter or built into huge
beehives, very often dyed, make-ups were totally re-created, even eye
colour was changed mostly to brown, violet, sky blue or green, "anything but peach!", he'd often say. The re-vamped Barbie had darker, fuller lips and lip shades (burgundy, prune, dark plumb, eggplant, ginger, sienna orange and even brown) and of
course painted finger nails and toe nails.
The thing was that BillyBoy* could not stand Barbie’s smile. I remember how vehemently he
insisted upon this detail when the definite model for his “Feelin’
Groovy” Barbie was discussed with Mattel America. He wanted Anna May
Wong/ Louise Brooks black hair and nothing else, and NO open mouth,
which he ended up getting, after endless debates. They only would use his idea completely with the closed-mouth Barbies (though it's still a closed-mouth smile) of the 2010s, nearly 28 years later! Unfortunately, and much to his despair, the BillyBoy* “Nouveau Théatre de la Mode”
Barbie, produced by Mattel France, did not conform to his expectations.
Quickly made, the doll was just an ordinary production Barbie using 1970s moulds, with the
straight hands BillyBoy* insisted upon as those “Superstar” hands were
getting on his nerves! She sadly maintained her generic toothy smile, turquoise, Endora from "Bewitched" bright make-up and pale pink lipstick. The only interesting aspect of this doll was that she was actually made in France, a precedent which has never been repeated.
A Barbie with black hair and closed mouth, dressed in fashionable clothes by a creator, quite a revolution in the world of the fluorescent princess: Barbie, dressed this way, has the poise and allure of a true parisienne!